'Snowplough' parenting and other unhelpful parenting labels

This is just the latest in a long line of labels adopted by experts to describe different child-rearing behaviour.
This is just the latest in a long line of labels adopted by experts to describe different child-rearing behaviour. Photo: Getty

Have you heard of “snowplough parenting”? It is the latest in a long line of parenting labels adopted by experts to describe different child-rearing behaviour.

“Snowplough parents” are known for ‘clearing a path’ to help their offspring succeed in life. At first glance this doesn’t sound like something to be concerned about, after all most parents want their children to do well in life.

But a leading education expert is warning “snowplough parents” to back off. Speaking to the Sunday Times, David McCullough, who has 30 years teaching experience, said that “snowplough parenting” turns children into “achievement machines” and that parents who cram their children’s lives with tutors, music lessons and sports practice could be preventing them from having prosperous careers.

McCullough outlines the threat of “snowplough parenting” in his new book, You are not special, and says that the issue stems from a “cult of exceptionalism” which has made children afraid to be average.

Examples of snowplough parenting include a child being sent on a 200 km bus journey to attend a piano lesson and another who blamed their spelling mistakes on their mother, telling a teacher “mum must have missed those,” when confronted in class.

McCullough says that parents should avoid micromanaging their children and try to take a step back.

“Try as much as possible to give children free reign. Let them follow their own passions and curiosities without overweening interference every step of the way,” he explains.

But family therapist Abi Gold from Juggle Family and Parenting Consultancy says that labels like this are not helpful to parents who are just trying to do their best. “It’s very easy to pigeon hole people, but it isn’t useful or constructive.”

Gold notes that labels such as “helicopter parent” or “Tiger mum” are often used to pit parents against each other. “It is one of the ways that we make ourselves feel better about the way that we parent,” she says.

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“I feel strongly that labels like this are not constructive, they don’t help anyone,” says Gold.

Michelle, a mother of three, agrees. “I think what I object to about these labels is that they have the tendency to divide parents because they are often used judgmentally,” she says. 

However, some mums say that they do find labels such as “free range or attachment painting helpful because they allow them to identify other mothers that parent in the same way.

“I am okay with being 'free range' because for some it helps them identify different parenting styles without impacting their choices. I.e. it’s okay that I do it differently from Jo, because I am more free range tribe than helicopter tribe,” says Alison who has two children.

If you’re not sure which label best describes your own parenting style, this glossary might help.

Attachment parenting: Known for keeping their babies close, attachment parents follow the principals of attachment theory to develop a strong bond.

Helicopter parents: Known for hovering, helicopter parents stay close to their child at all times to protect them from perceived danger.

Tiger mum: Based on a book by Amy Chua, ‘Tiger Mums’ are known for a firm hand and the pursuit of academic goals ahead of anything else.

Free-range parenting: Known for allowing their children more freedom and independence, for example, by letting their children walk to school alone. 

Outsourcing: Known for paying experts to do the hard graft. Almost any element of child rearing can be outsourced – including potty training.

But, rather than adopting a well-known label some parents are inventing their own terms such as “minimalist parenting,” “common sense parenting” and “boot camp mum.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” says Jules. “But I do run a tight ship, so ‘boot camp mum’ suits me quite well!”